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Cycle track vs. parking spaces battle continues in Somerville

Posted by Jarret Bencks  February 22, 2013 09:21 AM

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During peak commuting times, over 300 bicycles travel Somerville's Beacon Street an hour, making it Greater Boston's busiest cycling corridor. It's also considered to be the most dangerous in the state, with 154 bicycle accidents in the Inman Square area between 2002 and 2010, according to a state Department of Transportation report.

The street is riddled with potholes, and in certain areas cyclists are frequently exposed to the danger of being "doored:" struck by an opening door of a parked vehicle. But despite the dangers, it has become increasingly popular as a direct bicycle route from Porter Square to Kendall Square. 

Using a combination of federal and state grants, Somerville and state transportation planners have devised a $5.5 million project aimed at addressing safety issues and making the street more bike-oriented. It will reconstruct 1.1 miles of Beacon — from Oxford Street to the Cambridge city line, including creating a cycle track, which separates bicycle traffic with a barrier dividing it from cars — and give cyclists their own traffic signals.

City officials and proponents say the plan will enhance bicycle safety without impacting vehicle traffic. But it has become a divisive issue as some residents and business owners have objected to the sacrifice of parking spaces to make room for the cycle track. As currently drawn up, the plan will eliminate about 100 street parking spaces.
 
Domenic Ruccio, owner of the Beacon Street Laundromat, said he thinks losing parking spaces will hurt businesses and property values.

"If you take a neighborhood like this and it gets a reputation of being unparkable, the rents of these apartments goes down, then the value of the real estate follows it," he said. "No one is anti-bike, everyone wants them to be safer, but you can do it in a way that doesn’t cause such collateral damage."
 
Cyclist advocates, meanwhile, said improving the road for bikes will bring more people to the area, improve safety, and make it a more desirable place to live for those who embrace the lifestyle.

"There seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to the eliminated parking wherever something like this is proposed." said Pete Stidman, executive director of the Boston Cyclists Union.  " . . . We think if it was fixed up and made safer, you'd see an even huger increase in cycling there."

Hayes Morrison, Somerville's director of Transportation & Infrastructure,  said the city has reviewed the street through two parking studies and found there is ample parking available, and there would continue to be after the reconstruction and loss of spaces.

City officials have listened to the concerns of business owners and residents, Morrison said, which have been aired at five public meetings on the project, and expressed in a petition against losing the parking spaces that attracted over 700 signatures.

Adjustments are being made to the plan, including changing the area where parking spaces would be removed from a commercial-heavy area of the street to a more residential section. The city is also looking into leasing 30 spaces to be used as metered public parking, Morrison said.

Improving intersections for pedestrian safety and beautification elements also are being implemented into the plans, Morrison said. The plan will continue to be tweaked, but a cycle track will remain part it. The roadway has seen a steady increase in bicycle traffic over the last 10 years, and those numbers are only expected to go up, Morrison said. As that has happened, vehicle traffic has declined, falling 13 percent from 1999 to 2012, she said.

"We can't find any other roadway in the Commonwealth that's more suitable for a cycle track, based on who is using the roadway," Morrison said.

The track would be the first of its kind in Somerville and the sixth in the Greater Boston area, according to Morrison.

Some residents want to put the brakes on the plans for a cycle track entirely.

Dave Olmsted, who lives at 312 Beacon St., thinks it would be more prudent to narrow the sidewalk on Beacon Street from 10 feet to 7 feet, and use the additional space to widen the bike lanes. He even went as far as coming up with his own plan for the street, which he presented to the city and the Department of Transportation.

Olmsted said he is primarily concerned about the loss of parking spaces, and the road can be improved for cyclists without impacting parking.

"I have to believe the way they are putting this in, this permanent change isn't right," he said. "It hurts the parking and it doesn't help the bikers any."

Olmsted's plan would take away from one of the benefits of the current plans, which is to slow down traffic, Morrison said. Wider streets — even with bike lanes — encourage drivers to go faster, she said.

Maryann Heuston, the alderwoman representing Ward 2 where the project is located, said she was convinced parking issues could be addressed through "block-by-block decision-making," including tailoring parking space restrictions and loading zones to specific business needs, and by auiring additional spaces for metered use.

"We're doing something a little unique here that this city hasn't done before," she said. "I think there has to be a way to try this."

Reconstructing Beacon Street has been in the works since at least 1997, said Heuston, a lifetime resident of the street, but has frequently taken a back seat to other city projects, such as redeveloping Somerville Avenue and work in Magoun Square.

"This street is in such disrepair," she said. "It's difficult to walk it, drive it, bicycle it; you can't cross it safely . . . this has been labeled a project for cyclists, and it will make it safer for them, but it's going to make it a better street for everybody."

The current reconstruction does not address any issues after Beacon Street becomes Hampshire Street when it crosses the Cambridge line, but Morrison said Somerville has been in constant contact with Cambridge City Hall, and she expected Hampshire Street to be addressed sometime in the future.
 
A sixth public meeting will be held March 5 at the Dr. Albert F. Argenziano School,  290 Washington St. Somerville planners and representatives from the state's Department of Transportation will be on hand to discuss the most recent changes to the project and respond to concerns.

While there are hopes the project can be completed by 2015, Morrison said the city will hold as many public meetings as it takes to settle issues with residents and business owners.
 
"I sincerely doubt this is the last meeting," she said.

Jarret Bencks can be reached at bencks.globe@gmail.com. Follow him on twitter @JarretBencks.

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